Walt “Clyde” Frazier: Still Swishing and Dishing
Knowing what we now know, seeing what we’ve seen, it’s difficult to even imagine Walt “Clyde” Frazier playing anywhere other than New York City, inside the World’s Most Famous Arena.
Yet, Walt Frazier and New York nearly never happened.
“I thought I was going to Seattle, man,” Walt Frazier recalls as he serenely sips an apple juice inside ‘Walt Clyde Frazier’s Wine and Dine,’ a sparkling new restaurant (and a spectacular shrine to the coolness of Clyde) on Manhattan’s west side.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s obvious that Clyde and NYC were made for each other; a perfect match if ever there was one. Would Frazier have become “Clyde” if he played his prime 3,000 miles away from MSG? Would the Knicks have ever raised a championship banner to the rafters if Clyde wasn’t their point guard?
Still, in the spring of 1967, on the eve of the NBA draft, Frazier was convinced that playing for the Knicks was a hopeless, impossible dream
“When I was in college, on the day of the draft, I was talking with Seattle,” Frazier explains, “and we had worked out a three-year deal where they were going to draft me.”
The Seattle SuperSonics, in need of a lead guard, had the sixth pick in the 1967 draft, one slot behind the Knickerbockers, who were selecting fifth overall. However, New York wasn’t even a consideration, according to Clyde.
“The Knicks had never talked me,” Frazier said. “I talked to Chicago (third pick), I talked to Baltimore (second pick), but the Knicks had never called.”
Frazier had his first taste of the Big Apple a few months prior, when he led Southern Illinois University to the NIT championship game, which was played inside Madison Square Garden. Safe to say, Frazier felt an instant attraction. And for Frazier, the love the big city had for the game of basketball was evident immediately.
“I’m from Atlanta, Georgia, the South. I’d never read a newspaper where there eight pages about basketball,” Frazier said. “You know, in the South it’s all about football. So I was like, ‘Man I wish I could get drafted by the Knicks!’ But I never thought it would happen…”
During any draft, a team’s primary objective is typically addressing its biggest areas of need. At the time, the Knicks were flush with guards, which is why Frazier was certain he wasn’t a fit.
“They had Dick Barnett and Howard Komives as the starting backcourt. They also had Emory Bryant, Freddie Crawford, and Cazzie (Russell). Bill Bradley was coming back from his time as a Rhodes Scholar,” Frazier said. “I was just assuming they would never draft me, because what would they do with me?”
Thus, in the weeks and days leading up to the draft, Frazier was preparing himself to begin his professional career in Seattle.
“Seattle knew, just like I did, that the Knicks were not taking me because they had all those guards.”
The 1967 NBA draft was held on May 3. It wasn’t broadcast on the radio, let alone televised. Frazier was on the campus of Southern Illinois anxiously awaiting word.
“So I go to class and I come back and my attorney has this bizarre look on his face,” Frazier said. “He says: ‘You’ve just been drafted by the Knicks.’ And I go: ‘For what… they have all these guards… what are they gonna do with me?
“I’m telling you man, I never even talked to them. They never called me or anything. So when they drafted me, I was totally shocked.”
Clyde added: “Luck. Sheer luck, that I was drafted by the Knicks and not Seattle… My favorite word is ‘serenity.’ A lot of my success has come that way.”
Frazier’s good fortune was not only getting to play and live in such an exciting, electrifying city, which would eventually allow both his game and his personality to flourish; Clyde was also blessed to join an organization on the threshold of greatness.
Three short years later, Frazier and the Knicks would capture the first NBA championship in franchise history, knocking off the vaunted L.A. Lakers.
In the seventh and deciding game, after Willis Reed famously limped onto the floor to spark the Knicks and spook the Lakers, Frazier delivered the knock-out punch, authoring one of the greatest Game 7 performances in the history of the sport – Clyde finished with 36 points, 19 assists, seven rebounds and five steals.
On a personal level, Walt was overwhelmed.
“I can’t even say it was a ‘dream come true’ because I never could have dreamt that,” Frazier said. “I was just on cloud nine. After that, I couldn’t spend any money in New York. Everywhere I went somebody was buying me food or sending over champagne. It was just a phenomenal feeling to be in the greatest city in the world.”
However, Clyde still felt he had much to prove, and went about doing just that.
“I still wasn’t mentioned with (Oscar) Robertson or (Jerry) West as one of the greatest guards in the game,” Frazier said. “I had to do it at least two or three more seasons before I was mentioned in the same breath as those guys. I always used that for motivation. That was a catalyst for me, trying to be mentioned with those guys. So I just kept working hard.”
New York would go on to claim another championship in 1973, once again beating L.A.
Clyde recalls fondly, “One day I picked up the Post and on the back page it said, ‘Walt Frazier: Superstar.’”
In the 40 years that have since passed, the Knicks have yet to return to the Promised Land. This is one of the reasons why those teams are spoken of in such reverent tones amongst New Yorkers, even to this day.
To say those Knick teams were beloved by New York is gross understatement. NYC worshiped the Knicks and Madison Square Garden was the community’s cathedral. A visceral combination of admiration and respect poured onto the court from the MSG faithful each time those Knicks took the floor. And instead of diminishing over time, the love affair has only intensified.
Looking back, Frazier believes the sociological elements of the time played a part in fostering this immense affection.
“That team was so symbolic of New York City, especially considering all the tumultuous times, with war and racism and all of that,” Frazier said. “The Knicks held fast. It was two hours or three hours where people could forget about their troubles and go watch a team that was color blind. We played together offensively and defensively, played unselfish basketball. People wanted to know us off the court as well, the personality and character of those players.”
Talk to any player on those squads, or any fan of those teams, or anybody even remotely familiar with the history of the sport, and many of the same words will consistently be repeated when describing the Knicks of the early 1970’s: unselfishness, teamwork, sacrifice, defense.
When asked where those Knicks teams rank amongst the great champions in NBA history, Frazier responds: “I wouldn’t say the greatest, but I think we were one of the smartest teams. The talent that we had was limited, but as Bill Bradley always said, ‘The parts are not as great as the sum.’ I could have scored more, Willis could have scored more, but we would not have been a championship team. Because everybody was willing to sacrifice for the good of the team, we became champions.”
When queried as to which individual he believed was primarily responsible for encouraging and instilling this incredible collective unselfishness, Frazier doesn’t point to one particular player or coach.
“It started well before that,” Frazier said. “I never met Willis Reed’s parents, but I’m sure they were just like my parents. Or Barnett’s, or Bradley’s. And their early coaches were similar to mine as well I bet. The team was the essence. There were no prima donnas.
“And then when it came to professionalism, Red Holzman was the catalyst, demanding that we played together as a team, both offensively and defensively. Of course you had Willis, who was the backbone. And you had Dave (DeBusschere) who was there. And all the other veterans that made it all happen. Also, Eddie Donovan (the team’s general manager) was very receptive to working alongside Red and not allowing egos to get involved in the development of the team.”
As his playing career wound down, Frazier freely admits the transition was extremely difficult: “It was a tumultuous time, man. The first two years out of the game was a major adjustment. Nobody is ringing your phone off the hook. Nobody is calling you all the time. The first thing I found out is that I needed to control my ego. Things were different; they had already moved on to the next ‘Clyde.’”
Frazier subsequently worked as a sports agent for a few years and actually represented more football players than basketball players. Clyde described how he needed that time and distance away from the game before diving back into basketball.
“I was burned out,” Frazier said. “I don’t think I even watched games for seven or eight years. That’s how the whole St. Croix thing developed (Frazier now owns a home there and lives there in the offseason). I wanted serenity, and was trying to prepare for retirement.”
However, unbeknownst to him at the time, the next great phase of Clyde’s career was just around the bend.
“In 1987, when I was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, I was doing a series of interviews, and that was when people at the Garden asked if I would like try doing some radio or TV,” Frazier said. “And that is how I got into broadcasting.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
Today’s generation of Knicks fans, whose fathers regaled them with stories of Clyde’s exploits as a player, now admire Clyde for how he uniquely describes the exploits of others.
Frazier has been a constant presence inside MSG for nearly 25 years, and consequently has seen it all. Fortunately, after spending nearly a decade as a league-wide laughingstock, the Knicks are finally contenders once again. However, when discussing the current state of the franchise, Clyde is concerned with the recent regression of the 2012-13 Knicks. Specifically, the deterioration on the defensive end of the floor has Frazier particularly perturbed.
“The defense has been porous,” Frazier said of this year’s Knicks. “To me, the defense has to get better. They can’t keep guys out of the paint. Of the 30 teams in the league, they are 29th in shot blocking, so they are clearly not intimidating people. Every game they are getting outscored in the paint, which makes it very difficult to win.”
Another contributing factor to the Knicks’ recent struggles has been their inability to stay cool, calm, and collected. Considering that Frazier was never once whistled for a technical throughout his entire career, this, unsurprisingly, also rubs Clyde the wrong way: “I think it’s up to the coach to get everyone under control. Even he (Mike Woodson) has been culpable; he’s had technicals. We’ve seen teams that play physically can get into the Knicks heads and make them lose focus. Normally the Knicks end up losing those games.”
When asked about the lack of a connection between the current Knicks players and the superstars from New York’s glory days of the early 70’s – or even the great Ewing-led teams of the 1990’s – Clyde acknowledges fans are always surprised when he informs them that very, very few players seek him out for advice on how handle the bright lights of Broadway. He also feels there should be more of an effort made by the franchise to help spread the word.
“Not only do they have me, but they have other great players around,” Frazier said of the Knicks. “I feel like we should be like the Yankees. We also have a legacy. In training camp, they should bring in those guys from years past to fraternize with the players. A lot of today’s players don’t even know that the Knicks were once a dominant team. We could help perpetuate the legacy of the team, just like the Yankees do when they bring their guys down to spring training.”
Considering Clyde’s illustrious career as both a player and a broadcaster, he has had a unique vantage point on nearly every important moment in franchise history. Thus, his answer when asked “When’s the loudest he’s ever heard the Garden?” would surprise many. His immediate response: “Linsanity.”
When pressed and playfully reminded of Willis walking out of the tunnel, and LJ’s four-point play, Clyde repeats his answer assertively and without hesitation: “Linsanity. Unequivocally.”
Still, as if Clyde hadn’t packed enough excitement into life, he’s expanded his off-the-floor portfolio once more. After experiencing success in real estate investments over the years, Clyde how now also ventured into another enterprise.
“Walt Clyde Frazier’s Wine and Dine,” located at 485 10th avenue in midtown Manhattan, is a bustling and resplendent restaurant that has drawn rave reviews since opening in March of last year. Clyde often drops by to congregate with the patrons, but is omnipresent whether or not he is there in person. As the New York Times describes, “his well-stocked closet has been reimagined as abstract art, in a shoal of aluminum panels printed with stripes and plaids that swim above diners’ heads.”
While certainly happy he eventually accepted the invitation to open the restaurant, Clyde admits he was initially hesitant to commit.
“It was a difficult task for me,” Frazier said. “I thought at this point I would be retired. So my plan was to go to St. Croix and rent my properties. I had my sailboat license and was going to charter my boat to tourists… I would come back to New York periodically but primarily that would be my lifestyle.”
This was partly a result of Clyde being unsure about his standing with the executives at MSG and his future with the network at the time.
“I didn’t know if this (broadcasting) would be continuing, because at one point over there they had me retiring and things were going on, so I really didn’t know what was happening,” Frazier said, before explaining that his concerns were eventually assuaged. “Now there is a new regime and I’m in favor now and people want me, so I am going to do this as long as I can. But at that point, when my business partner came to me, I was like, well…”
Moreover, his hesitation of opening of a restaurant also stemmed from the fact it would obviously have a major impact on his lifestyle.
“When I’m not working, I like to stay in bed,” Frazier said. “I sleep, I go work out, and I go back to bed, unless there is a game or I have a personal appearance. So it took me a couple of weeks. But once I thought about, this was the perfect venue for me. Because whether I’m walking the street or signing autographs and taking pictures, I’m always talking basketball with people. Now this is just an extension of that with me doing it in my own restaurant.”
Looking back, he firmly believes he made the right choice: “I’m overwhelmed because the place exceeded my expectations. I never perceived it being the way it is. It’s just overwhelming. I’m very grateful.”
So many New Yorkers are exceedingly grateful as well. Thankful that the Knicks, and not the Sonics, selected Frazier with the fifth pick in the 1967 NBA draft; that Clyde helped deliver two NBA championships to New York City; that they’ve been able to enjoy listening to him provide color commentary on the radio and the TV for over 20 years.
And to think, Walt Frazier and New York nearly never happened.